2016 Big Shot of the Year Tribute Award - Warren Berggren, MD, MPH, DrPH

Award to be accepted by Gretchen Berggren, MD, MSc

The article below, titled "In memoriam: Warren Berggren, championed health as human right," originally appeared on the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health website July 29, 2015.

Together with his wife and public health partner, Gretchen Glode Berggren, MD, Warren Berggren, MD, launched groundbreaking community health programs in several countries in the developing world, including in Haiti, where they worked at the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles for many years.

Berggren received an MD degree from the University of Nebraska, where he met his wife. The couple married in 1959 in Belgium then served as medical missionaries in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. This experience led to their becoming strong proponents of health as a human right and the value of preventive medicine in correcting health disparities. In 1962, the Berggrens came to the Harvard School of Public Health (now the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health) to study disease prevention.

After completing their degrees, they moved to rural Haiti in 1967, founding the Community Health Program of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in partnership with the School. Their visionary program of taking vaccines for neonatal tetanus to local communities led to the virtual elimination of that disease. They also engaged local residents as community health workers to monitor patients with tuberculosis and other conditions.

Berggren was director of primary health care at Save the Children for 10 years. He also consulted for or worked under the Haitian and Tunisian ministries of health, USAID, UNICEF, World Relief, and the Colorado Haiti Project, on projects affecting 26 countries. The Berggrens received several awards for their work, including, among others, a lifetime achievement award from the American Public Health Association, a presidential citation from President Bill Clinton, the Donald McKay Medal of the American Society of Tropical Medicine, and an International Health Award from the Global Health Council, which was presented to them in person by Mother Theresa. The couple were also recognized by many governments for contributions to replicable models of community health and honored by national and international organizations, including Tulane University and the Universities of Colorado, Texas, and Nebraska. In 1998, the Berggrens received the Harvard Chan School’s Alumni Award of Merit—the highest honor bestowed by the School on its graduates. 

“Dr. Warren Berggren was a physician, a scientist, and most of all a humanitarian,” said Grace Wyshak, associate professor in the Departments of Biostatistics and Global Health and Population. “Through their work, Dr. Berggren and his wife, Dr. Gretchen Berggren, improved the lives of Haitians and those in other developing countries.”

Joseph Brain, the Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology, called Berggren “a public health hero and beloved colleague of our School who leaves a rich legacy.” 

“Warren, in partnership with his wife, Gretchen, had a profound effect on the health of children everywhere, especially in Haiti,” said Brain. “He was a physician who focused on prevention of disease through nutrition and vaccination. He embraced community empowerment, and was guided by the needs and ambitions of those he served. He exemplified patience, compassion, skill, wisdom, and effectiveness. Hundreds of international health professionals saw Warren as a mentor and model for what can and must be done globally to make health a universal human right.”

Berggren is survived by his wife; his children, Ruth Berggren, MD, and Jeannie Tanski; two sisters; and four grandchildren. A memorial service sponsored by the Center for Global Health of the University of Colorado School of Public Health was held on June 8 at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado.

Warren Berggren obituary in The Lancet